Serbian ruling parties oust opposition leader as Belgrade mayor

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia’s governing parties toppled opposition Democratic Party leader Dragan Djilas from the high-profile post of Belgrade mayor on Tuesday, in a show of power that could be a prelude to early parliamentary elections.

The Serbian Progressive Party and its Socialist partners in government accused Djilas of driving the capital deep into debt and voted 60-0 in the 110-seat city council to bring him down.

The Belgrade mayor is appointed in a majority vote in the city council and can be replaced at any time if the coalition within the council changes. Djilas had governed with the support of the Socialists, but they abandoned him on Tuesday.

Around 1.7 million of Serbia’s 7.3 million people live in the capital. With its $1 billion budget and high profile, the post has been used before as a bargaining chip in coalition negotiations on a national level.

Speculation is rife that the Progressives, riding high in opinion polls, may be emboldened to seek a new, stronger mandate in a snap election in early 2014, around the time when Belgrade will likely now vote for a new city council.

According to that scenario, the parliamentary election would follow the expected start of European Union accession talks in January.

Mayor since 2008, 46-year-old Djilas became leader of the main opposition Democratic Party last year after it lost the last parliamentary election.

“It is clear that my ouster has nothing to do with what we have achieved over the past five years,” Djilas told reporters before the council session.

“This is a political response to what I have been saying - that the country is sliding into dictatorship and single-party rule.”

The Democratic Party took power in Serbia after the fall of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, but was voted out in May last year at a time of recession and accusations of cronyism. Its popularity has since slumped further, according to opinions polls.

“The Democrats have been sliding deeper and deeper over the past year, partly because of their own mistakes, partly because of an offensive by their political foes and this (the ouster of Djilas) could easily be a prelude to new general elections,” said Petar Lazic, a political sciences lecturer at Belgrade-based Singidunum University.

The ruling coalition accused Djilas of racking up 644 million euros in debts in Belgrade. The Democrats deny profligate spending and say the debt is lower, around 400 million euros.

Editing by Matt Robinson and Sonya Hepinstall